As career journalists and managers we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.
Our traditional journalism models and our journalistic efforts are inefficient and up against the Crowd – armed with mobile devices and internet connections- incomplete.
Our response to date as an industry has been as equally inefficient and in many cases emotional.
The French philosopher Roland Barthes argues that when culture becomes nature we are in the presence of myth. In our blustering for self-justification we have created a myth of our value. Without ever establishing its economic value, we have argued our value as journalists and journalism itself is self-evident and unassailable.
Well, the walls have been scaled and the fortress sacked. Fortunately, we are left with solid foundations from which to be rebuild.
At the Journal Register Company, we have some thoughts about how we can re-build to create true value. While we have had many successes over the last 17 months, as you will see in a moment, let me be clear this is all a work in progress.
Any attempt at re-building starts with an accurate assessment of what’s wrong.
If you haven’t seen this quote already or read Clay Shirky’s seminal essay, I urge you to read it as soon as possible.
Its key message is clear:
You don’t transform from broken.
You don’t tinker or tweak
You start again anew and build from the ground up.
For those in our industry who still believe we can continue with the same business models, I ask you to examine the evidence to the contrary.
U.S. newspaper advertising is now at 1985 levels –before inflation adjustment.
From 1985 to 2005, the average growth rate was 2.7% per year.
Take out the high-low and it is still low single-digit growth.
And those were the good old days.
From the US industry’s advertising peak in 2005 until now it is less than half of what it was.
And at the avg. growth rate of 2.7% it will take about another quarter of a century to get back to where it was – in 1985.
But that is not going to happen. The growth in marketing/advertising dollars will no longer be in traditional media in the longer term.
The damage from the last six years along with over-leveraged capital structures has left the US newspaper industry in ruins.
And finally, as if more evidence was needed, in the United States our key customers have abandoned us. Now, more Americans get their news via the web and this year more advertising dollars will be spent on the web than in newspapers.
The customers have spoken.
Perhaps the previous slide should have been entitled the “results” of a broken industry rather than the “why” because what might be less obvious to most observers are some underlying brutal realities:
Traditional journalism is dead.
The Crowd collectively knows more about any subject, city or event we choose to cover than we do.
Armed with the same tools – and in many cases – equal access to information and the search capabilities to provide history and context, the Crowd can do what we do.
I think any economist would argue – and certainly Dr. Picard, who will be speaking later this morning, has also pointed out – that when supply increases and the criteria we as journalists have ascribed to creating value – access to information/sources; research capabilities and context and distribution – is available to almost anyone, then value plummets.
Raised on a staple diet of “he said last night” journalism, coverage by the Crowd – via social media – is instant, increasingly contextual and in many cases more complete than a traditional media company could ever achieve.
With our core mission gone how do we add value? What’s the role of the journalist in this mix?
Look at the recent coverage by the New York Times’ Brian Stelter of the tornado in Joplin, Missouri. He was – via Twitter – a reporting machine but that work did not appear as a “story”.
At the evermore progressive Postmedia – Canada’s largest newspaper company – reporters on the campaign trail during the recent federal election did just that – report.
They filed directly to the web and via social media while editors back in the newsrooms crafted the live feed into traditional stories.
Our craft has been and continues to be profoundly changed.
The fact that our industry – with few notable exceptions – does not understand that and continues to plow on by slashing editorial, research, marketing and even sales resources to meet profit expectations is simply stupid.
Newspapers get the investors they deserve.
With newspaper management bankrupt of ideas they seek to please investors by slashing costs and driving short-term gains.
Investors, being no fools and recognizing newspaper managers have no plans to truly transform their business, are simply doing their jobs when they keep management focused on producing short-term gains.
Investors don’t buy into myth. They buy into math.
If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies then you better give them a long-term plan that works. Give them a plan they will back.
And I would add it should be a plan built on the editorial floor where the core of our business lies.
The basic component of our survival and re-building can be found in the elements of our destruction.
The Crowd which has become our competitor is filling the web – the disintermediator of our industry – with news.
As a result, the web is a very crowded place for news. A filter is desired. It is even necessary.
Original and compelling journalism are key to standing out and it is the power of our brands, our reputation, that can spotlight – filter – for our audience where they should look for journalism they can trust.
Vint Cerf – called by some the Father of the Internet – and Google’s Chief Evangelist is very direct about this:
“People’s trust in journalism has always been about branding.”
So, what must we do?
First, if you have competitor so much bigger than you are such as the Crowd then you better make peace with it and partner.
Understand the Crowd’s value and add your value to theirs and turn the Crowd from a competitor into a colleague.
And if you listen to nothing else I have to say this morning then please listen to this:
Stop listening to Newspaper people.
We are well into our second decade of figuring out the web and by any measurement we have failed. We newspaper people are no good at it.
If you want to get good at it then stop listening to the Newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world – the customers and advertisers who have already told you what they think and have moved on.
And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge. Of everything.
Find new voices and let them push you around.
In our case, we have invited the Crowd into our newsrooms – more on that in a moment – and have established an Advisory Board of leading Digital thinkers:
Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, Emily Bell and Betsy Morgan, former CEO of Huffington Post.
Be Digital First and Print Last.
Stop focusing on the Print. It is in any newspaper’s DNA. It is not like you are going to forget to put out the newspaper.
Focus on the future. That future is not Print. It’s Digital.
Create a New Business Model.
A business model that lets you transition into the growing digital markets of audience and revenue.
We know we can still add value to the journalistic process and we know our brands and their audience have value.
What we don’t know is exactly what the future will be like and this is where many newspaper companies falter.
Arguments about news’ sustainability as an economic model or future of the adjacency of advertising to news have nearly paralyzed our industry from taking, what I would describe as, sensible steps into driving new products on new platforms with the resulting new audiences that advertisers want.
In conference after conference, the handwringing of not being able to articulate an endgame has become stultifying. Unlike Print, our Digital competitors are not trying to solve for an endgame and therefore have the courage to experiment and build.
As I will discuss in a moment, at JRC we are doing just that successfully and preparing a sustainable, investable transition model to take on the challenge of the future.
This transition has to be self –funding and that means reducing Legacy media costs.
You have to slay the production god and the legacy costs that go with that old model.
Two-thirds of a newspaper’s costs are infrastructure – stuff you don’t want to do – and NOT in what you DO want to do such as create compelling content and effective sales.
Harness both the Cloud and the Crowd to drive down those costs.
At Journal Register Company we are getting out of anything that does not fall into our core competencies of content creation and the selling of our audience to advertisers.
Get rid of the bricks and iron. Focus on core competencies. And if it is not core then:
Reduce it or stop it.
Outsource it or sell it.
There are now companies who do most of this much better than any newspaper company does because those ARE the core competencies of the outsource companies.
You will need the expenses you save from those cuts to fund the new products and platforms you will need.
News now breaks Digitally both in its’ origin and creation by the audience using social media and spreads virally. To be in the news business now means you must run your business as Digital First. And that means Print Last.
Print Last because that is how this new world works.
Print is a SLOW medium and digital is FAST. Atoms will never beat bits.
Each platform has its own advantages.
Each platform has an audience.
And each platform has a certain speed – Fast or Slow.
The quality of the journalism will be key.
Lousy journalism on multiple platforms is just lousy journalism in multiple ways.
Our Digital First transition strategy is centered on the cost- effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production.
It is a strategy that differentiates and prioritizes the allocation of resources – human and financial to the new realities of our business.
We can’t afford to allocate the new resources without reducing the old. Adding a new person or expense for every new Digital function is just putting more water into a sinking boat.
You have to multi-task.
And, again, you have to train your people to do so. If they can’t learn you have to let them go and hire those who can.
If done right, you will have a business model that:
Increases the quality and quantity of original content on the platforms of the consumers’ choice
Involves the Crowd
Expands Revenue Opportunities
And Increases Profits
In a world where the Crowd knows so much more than we do – we have to experiment.
While we encourage all of our employees to do that, we actually pay some of them to do just that – experiment.
We call it our ideaLab.
The ideaLab is a select employee group – we asked them to apply online via my blog (and they did in the hundreds) – who are paid to experiment.
We supply them the tools (Droids, Smartphones, iPhones, iPads, Netbooks, etc); the time (25% off with pay) plus some extra pay as an incentive.
There are no rules.
They have come up with Customer Relationship Management Tools; Ad Tracking and Publishing systems all using free web-based tools.
Others have developed training programs for fellow employees to help them navigate this transition.
Others are concentrating on journalism itself.
Our Ben Franklin Project is another experiment.
On July 4th - Independence Day – last year and across all of our 18 dailies, we:
Produced: Web & Print Products
Using Only Free Web-Based Tools
We are changing our culture at JRC and are starting to play offense rather than defense.
With lousy I.T, and tools – but eager employees – this transition is happening.
We have built sales support systems using an iPhone and free Google tools.
We have successfully printed pages on a press using only free web tools.
Our Capital Expenditures have been reduced by more than half from $25M to $12M. Why pay for what you can do for free?
But more importantly, we have harnessed the power of our employees and the Crowd.
We are learning more about what the Crowd wants because we are asking and involving them in the process. And because of their input we expect to be producing more of what the Crowd does consider of value.
We share all of the learned information and tools publicly.
In the case of the Ben Franklin Project you can go the Ben Franklin site and you will find a link to our Ben Franklin In A Box Kit.
Click on it and try your own experiment. And share the results.
As I said at the beginning of my remarks while we are not getting all of this right we are getting some of it right at these results show.
We have gone from bankrupt to a profitable company.
We have doubled our Digital audience and are growing our Digital revenue at 7x the industry standard in the US. In fact, in about one-third of our divisions – with Print down mid single-digit percentage points – we are up year over year these past few months because of digital ad growth.
Compare that to an industry in the U.S. where advertising was down about 10% in Q1.
And all of this was done with fewer costs than in 2008 but not fewer editorial and sales resources I might add.
I believe strongly that this kind of financial performance is the direct result of our openness to partnering with the Crowd to improve our products and by linking/outsourcing and restructuring our cost structure to one that is flexible and effective.
And, more importantly, is the result of the appropriate allocation of resources to building our future rather than protecting our past.
For this success to continue, the walls have to come down.
Paywalls, if you have them, should come down. And any walls between you and the communities you serve through your journalism need to come down as well.
Going forward, I think it is clear that smart, original content, tagged with advertising will gain value by being shared through networks. Jeff Jarvis at CUNY in New York is doing important work around this very concept. He says this very clearly:
“In the future content will go to the audience rather than the other way around.”
Shared Content Equals Influence.
And Influence in the new eco system equals Engagement.
And Engagement equals Value to those advertisers and others trying to reach that Engaged Audience.
Good journalism today that does not link is not of equal value to good journalism that does. Walls stop links and walls stop networks and destroy value.
Shared Content has to be of the highest quality whether created, curated or aggregated.
And you must invest in a process that provides more of the only competitive advantage we have left – the mass creation of compelling, original content.
At the Journal Register Company, we believe our Project Thunderdome is the Open Source Content Machine to power the combination of value-creating, shared and original content.
I won’t dwell too much on this morning since our VP of Content Jonathan Cooper is here at the conference and will discuss our efforts on a panel later today.
Thunderdome allows our Company to partner with the Crowd, improve the quality of our shared content while reducing production costs and letting us re-invest in the creation of more, local, original content – our competitive advantage.
Cooper, along with Jim Brady and Steve Buttry are on an aggressive timeline to launch Thunderdome in the next six months. The long-term future of our Company depends upon it.
Key to all of our efforts is to open up our newsrooms and our newsgathering processes to increase audience engagement and to enhance the value of our content.
Instead of paywalls, we see greater value creation in the open sharing of our content. Our approach is to treat content like an API – available to any who want it.
At our open-to-the-public newsroom in Torrington, CT we have gone one-step further in including the Crowd in our news content creation efforts.
Community members are invited to sit in on news meetings, participate in our Community Media Lab – we now have 20 such labs across our Company – and to work at blogger stations set up in the newsroom itself.
A bit like democracy – it can sometimes be ugly to watch – but it is also exhilarating and is driving meaningful change. In Torrington that small daily now has nearly 6x more Digital customers than Print and it is profitable again.
We will be rolling out its open-concept to all of our daily newspapers.
I am proud to say that the Journal Register Company – once the poster child for what ails the US newspaper industry – is now a company with a plan and a plan for the future that is working.
Like all business plans in times of great upheaval, our plan isn’t without flaws and it isn’t unaffected by the economy but it is a better built foundation from which to grow. And it is a plan worth investing in.
Thank you for time and I would be pleased to answer any of your questions.
There has been a lot of news lately resulting from various news organizations posting rules governing their employees’ use of social media.
Some of you have asked what are JRC’s Employee Rules For Using Social Media. To keep it simple I have reduced them to three:
Until next time, John.
Take a bow – you did it!
Our goal was to hit $40M in profit in 2010. Well you did better than that – you hit more than $41M. Not bad for a bankrupt, beat up old newspaper company people had written off as dead in 2009.
But we didn’t write ourselves off. We picked ourselves up and got working.
We learned to harness both cloud and crowd. Using new tools and working the new news ecology we produced new digital products and revenue streams AND reduced costs. We focused on what we do best and linked to the rest.
We learned how to put out out daily newspapers and websites using only free web tools. And the Ben Franklin Project was born. We established the ideaLab and you came up with more and better products.
We put about 1,000 Flip cams in your hands and we now produce about 4,000 minutes of original local news video per week. Stay tuned for more on that next quarter – think JRC TV.
You changed our culture and how we think. And we are a better Company for that.
AIl of that change is reflected in our bottom-line.
I promised you would all share in that profit, so look in your pay check tomorrow – you will all find an extra week’s pay. All, that is, except for our senior executives. They have a bonus plan and it’s enough already.
I promised and you delivered. And I cannot thank you enough for your effort this past year.
Together, with your help, we are transforming the Journal Register Company into a modern news media company. A transformation powered by its employees.
Until next time, John.
Success has many fathers but failure is always an orphan.
And I would add to that old saw – failure is always something the experts predicted as they revel in their “I told you so” moments.
Such is the case on the dismantling of the Jim Brady project that was TBD.com. Oh TBD.com is still on the web and it still has staff. It just isn’t the brilliant experiment that Brady and his team initially built for Allbritton Communications.
And the idea that the company that green lit Politico.com dismantled TBD before it could walk and, by doing so, brand it a failure both baffles me and disturbs me.
The resulting coverage is as equally confusing and disturbing and, as one would expect with such a high profile journalism project, it has been voluminous. So, I will link here to just one such posting http://bit.ly/gV574w on the Poynter site by Rick Edmonds, described on the site as a “Media Business Analyst & Leader of News Transformation”.
Edmonds acknowledges “hindsight is 20/20″ but quickly adds “it is pretty easy to see a number of things that went wrong or were flawed from the get-go.” Really?
Edmonds then outlines the six business lessons to be learned from TBD’s “early demise”:
1. Branding Matters
2. Effective Ad Sales Are Paramount
3. Fill An Existing Need
4. Pedigree Does Not Equal Strategy
5. Building Out Big Is A Risk
6. Fail Fast
It is kind of hard to argue with Edmonds’ “lessons” since at their basic level they are business 101. He might have added to such stellar analysis that if you bring in more money than you spend your business will probably survive. That he links the failure to learn these lessons to Brady and the team and gives Allbritton Communications not only a pass but applauds them for trying TBD at all and “quitting when it was time to quit” is just plain bad analysis from Poynter’s “analyst”.
In my opinion, Allbritton Communications cannot be applauded for trying when quite simply they didn’t try. Allbritton did not back the TBD strategy of Brady and his team. They simply stated publicly the one they heard from Brady but clearly did not understand.
If they had backed the Brady strategy they would have worked it. That may have included downsizing or even removing Brady if they felt they had to as
they tried new and different tactics to fulfill the strategy. That’s any company’s prerogative.
What Allbritton did was “back” a high-profile strategy that got them lots of
positive press. It hit some bumps in the road and then they simply stopped because they never understood what they were “backing” and it was costing money. Perhaps more than they first thought. Well, welcome to the business jungle. That’s how it goes.
And now we have Poynter’s “analyst” calling it a failure and lauding the owner
for trying. That’s crap.
The inevitable negative fallout from the “told-you-so” analysts is that hyperlocal doesn’t work even for bold Allbritton Communications. Again, crap.
Worse crap is we now have the reputations of some of the best and brightest in the digital space effectively being maligned for being all talk and no walk – see Edmonds’ lesson No. 4: Pedigree Does Not Equal Strategy.
Allbritton Communications started something it didn’t understand. The economy and advertising market softened negatively effecting their bottom line. So they stopped TBD.
That’s like our Journal Register Company stopping Digital First because it is tough to do.
What does Allbritton think the future for its products is – keep doing more of the same? With the same results – long-term ad decline coupled with high legacy costs and ever-lower profits?
Allbritton Communications can do whatever it wants with its money – God Bless America – but it can’t pretend to have seriously tried the hyperlocal business space after a six-month experiment it derailed half-way in. And it can’t hide behind apologists like Edmonds.
Local journalism and the TBD team deserve better. So do the Americans who rely on their community news providers.
Folks, a short video interview with me on why the Journal Register Company and our Digital First strategy will beat Patch or a Huffington Post in our markets.